Erasmus Desiderius (originally Gerrit Gerritszoon 1467-1536) was a Dutch scholar, man of letters and statesman born in Rotterdam. His humorous and insightful writings about religion during the Renaissance, especially the practices of the clergy, won him renown and gained controversy among the intellectual and religious elites of his day.
A former Augustinian monk (1487) and priest (1492), his most famous work, In Praise of Folly, (1509) apparently was written in only a week as an idle pastime while visiting, and for the benefit of, Sir Thomas More. But its numerous scholarly references suggest that it was re-worked prior to publication.
Holding many views that would not seem out of place for a contemporary thinker, Erasmus has the extra benefit of not being swayed by contemporary scientific materialism. Insanity, for instance, is said to be of two types:
One kind is sent from hell by the vengeful furies whenever they let loose their snakes and assail the hearts of men with lust for war, insatiable thirst for gold, the disgrace of forbidden love…or some other sort of evil…The other is quit different, desirable above everything, and is known to come to me. It occurs whenever some happy mental aberration frees the soul from its anxious cares and at the same time restores it by the addition of manifold delights.”¹
Probably due to his keen intelligence, he was never persecuted for his views. He seems to have mastered the art of getting the knives of notables to butter his bread instead of stabbing him in the back.
Erasmus was a humanist who believed that the ethical principles of religion were more important than its rules, regulations, doctrines and ceremonies. He took great pains to illustrate that the clergy was rife with hypocrisy and corruption. Colloquia familiaria (1519) was a parody of abuses and degeneracy among the clergy.
After some time Erasmus denounced the Reformation figure Martin Luther, whom he had formerly praised. Luther’s dogmatic theology was too rigid for Erasmus’ free-style thinking. Among his other works, Erasmus was the first to translate the Greek New Testament.
¹ Erasmus of Rotterdam, Praise of Folly and Letter to Martin Dorp, 1515, trans. Betty Radice, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973, p. 121.
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